How to Make Smart Decisions About Smart Cities

Nov 15, 2017
Chris Conley

Page Media

smart city graphic

These days, it seems like almost every city is launching “smart initiatives” that promise to turn data about the city into improved public services, a vibrant business community, or a new approach to challenges like public health. 

But it's not smart to assume that any given “smart city” technology will actually benefit the public. These technologies can cause real harm to people. They have the power to exacerbate racial or economic inequality, or turn your city into a panopticon in service of a surveillance state. Like other tools, their effectiveness depends on when, where, and how they are used. City planners and other officials looking into smart initiatives have a duty to thoroughly investigate the technologies in question and any costs and risks that might accompany its use.

To help in that effort, the ACLU of Northern California released a new report today, Making Smart Decisions About Smart Cities, designed to help planners and officials assess the promises and drawbacks of smart city projects and products. Like its partner guide, Making Smart Decisions about Surveillance, this report draws from real experiences of smart cities that have thrived or struggled based on their decisions and the process behind them.

We suggest four key steps to evaluate any smart technology your city might be considering:

Focus on the purpose, not the sales pitch

Centering any smart initiative around specific, measurable benefits for your city helps to assess risks and options and reduces the chances of unforeseen consequences that can arise from solutions in search of problems.

Understand the technology

Does the technology collect its own data via sensors or rely on some other source? What kind of data does it get, and how precise and accurate is it? How does the tool account for missing or biased data? And what, ultimately, does it do with all the data it has?

Identify and assess costs and risks

Smart initiatives are not guaranteed to produce equitable results just because they replace or supplement human decision-makers with technology; they can easily disproportionately help or harm specific communities in your city, especially if they are driven by data or algorithms that are themselves biased. And many technologies that involve sensors can be used for secret surveillance or otherwise invade people’s privacy if technical or policy protections are not in place.

Engage with the community

Because smart initiatives can have widespread and often unanticipated effects, city officials should ensure that the community is informed and involved throughout the process, both before any contract is signed or technology is acquired and after any initiative launches. Transparency, accountability, and feedback are essential tools for ensuring that the technology truly serves your city and the people who live, work, and visit there.

A truly smart city knows that technology is as likely to cause problems as to solve them if it is not deployed with care and foresight. We hope our guide can help cities work through the issues and questions that smart city technologies create.

Chris Conley is a technology & civil liberties policy attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.